Sinead Gleeson: “Music has often been seen as a man’s job”

When artist and writer Juliana Huxtable first discovered American jazz singer Linda Sharrock, she was “well-grounded in the ‘psychedelic era'” of her life. “I’m convinced Linda’s renders found me,” she wrote in Poem of praise for Linda, an essay that not only pays homage to one woman’s croons, but also takes us into “the masterful eruption of unmistakably black expression.” Sharrock is, for Huxtable, a virtuoso in a long line of black female singers who, despite being precursors to the avant-garde, are largely uncredited.

“An essay is never about a single topic, it’s always about many things,” writer, editor and host Sinéad Gleeson says on a Zoom call from her home in Dublin. Take Huxtable’s poem of praise, for example. “I love this essay,” says Gleeson. “You take it and learn something new about a woman who does amazing things with her voice, outside of language, outside of sound.” Few people have heard of her, and Sharrock is now nearly 75 years old. “Maybe people reading this book will change that a bit.”

The book we are talking about is a collection of essays on the female experience in music, This woman’s work – a nod to Kate Bush’s 1989 song – edited by Gleeson and his collaborator, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Decades after watching Sonic Youth play in a sweaty club as a teenager, Gleeson was invited to interview Gordon during a retrospective of her work at Dublin’s Museum of Modern Art. Gordon, fresh out of writing her memoirs, girl in a groupwas looking for a partner and found one in Gleeson, an editor who describes the act of commissioning an essay as “searching for gold.”

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This collection of essays is essentially about discovering voices. “Can you imagine any woman in music getting a nine-hour contract Come back type-thing done about them? Kate Bush, maybe. Aretha Franklin, maybe,” Gleeson thinks as we discuss how women have been sidelined in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Music has often been considered “a man’s job”. How aware was she of not coming from an entirely defensive position, I ask – because that would be easy to do, wouldn’t it? “Absolutely,” replies Gleeson. “And that’s the crux of the matter, really. There are so many things worth celebrating.

And celebrating it does. From Megan Jasper’s innovative work with grunge label Sub Pop, to Kim Gordon’s collaborative friendship with Japanese noise-rocker Yoshimi Yokota, to Zakia Sewell hear voices, a moving vibrato love letter from his mother, “a ghost, immortalized on tape”. Reframing the narratives with a feminine eye, no genre is left to chance in these 16 essays, moving us away from the trap and the exercise (Gleeson calls Simone White’s deep dive into these sub-genres of hip- hop from “brilliant and uplifting and unlike any other essay in this book”) to folk and country, to jazz and electronic.

There are the musicians we know (Ella Fitzgerald), the composers we might recognize (Wendy Carlos) and the unsung innovators we have yet to meet (Maggie Nelson introduces us to American singer-songwriter -Mexican Lhasa de Sela). “Even Rachel Kushner’s essay on Wanda Jackson isn’t just about her,” says Gleeson. “It’s about America at a certain point, it’s about how you don’t have to stay in one place musically or spiritually.”